Amber mines in the Dominican Republic

Most of us have a certain image in our heads as to what a mine should look like. Shafts. Dirty-faced miners. Trolley. Shovels. Lamps on helmets. Is this what a Dominican Amber mine looks like? Not at all. And Steven Spielberg didn’t help the image. In his 1993 movie JurassicPark he depicted a Dominican Amber Mine the way he felt it should look (using the above words).

Shaft mining is what everyone understands under ‘mining’: trolleys, lamps, pillars, the works. But Dominican Amber mines use the bell pitting method.

Dominican Miners in front of their fox hole

Dominican Miners in front of their fox hole

Bell pitting is basically a foxhole dug with whatever tools are available. Machetes do the start, some shovels and picks and hammers may participate eventually. The pit itself goes as deep as possible or safe, sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal, but never level. It snakes into hill sides, drops away, joins up with others, goes straight up and pops out elsewhere. ‘Foxhole’ applies indeed: rarely are the pits large enough to stand in, and then only at the entrance. Miners crawl around on their knees using candles and short-handled picks, shovels and machetes. There are little to no safety measures in sight. A pillar or so may hold back the ceiling from time to time but only if the area has previously collapsed.

A Dominican Amber Miner Family

A Dominican Amber Miner Family

There are some mining families who have done this for years. Other miners come on a temporary basis, but the number of people involved in the digging process fluctuates around 3000 island wide. In light of the above circumstances one is forced to ask why anyone would want to continue in such a seemingly hazardous occupation. In order to understand the Dominican miners, one must understand the Dominican idiosyncrasy. The gist would be: as long as it works, it’ll do.

​The lack of security measures is not due to a lack of money. Being an amber miner can be quite profitable. But why install safety procedures if nothing serious has happened? Why use expensive flashlights if candles are so much cheaper? Why waste time digging large holes if small ones are dug much faster? Although there are exceptions and variations, this is collectively known as the Mañana Philosophy. Why do it today if you can do it mañana?​Foresight is practically nonexistent — living in the moment is what counts. Many mining families live in relative poverty (relative to western standards) but not always due to a lack of money but a lack of will, prevision and care on their own behalf: we have lived like this all our life and it has served us well – why change?

There is also a shocking lack in any other safety measures we have come to know from mines. Candles are the only source of light. Humidity inside the mines is at 100%. Since the holes are situated high on mountainsides (no rivers to speak of) and deep inside said mountains, the temperature is cool and bearable, but after several hours the air becomes stale.During rain the mines are forced to close. The holes fill up quickly with water, and there is little point in pumping it out again (although sometimes this is done) because the unsecured walls may crumble. The dirt is hauled out of the pits using sacks, and the miners crawl to the surface out of their cave in Platonic fashion, squint into the sun as they dump the dirt and promptly return down into their reality. Yes, there are some mines where they would use even caterpillars and Jack-Hammers. But most of them are state-of-the-art 1700 B.C.E.